A Letter to My American Friends from Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

Historically Chechens and Georgians have been enemies. Our enmity was heightened by their religious difference as Muslims and Orthodox Christians respectively and also by brutality committed by Chechens in recent wars in Georgia.  When the refugees fled Russia during the brutal cold winter we responded specifically in response to the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies.  

So writes Baptist Archbishop of Georgia, Malkhaz Songulashvili whose often humorous renditions of global ecumenism have enriched this blog. I want to share the full text of his letter to Americans in the wake of the emotions surrounding the Boston Marathon and its aftermath. This incident took place an hour from where I live now, a mile from a parish I once served, and two blocks from the church where I was ordained. His words are prophetic of a far greater neighboring and I am glad to share them here in hope.

Threefold Grief of Mine

(A letter to my American Friends)

Millions of people have been grieved by the bombing in Boston. I suppose I am one of them. No, I have never been to Boston. I do not have much connection with the city.  I don’t think I know many people there either. For various reasons I think my grief is threefold.

It grieves me to think of the innocent people who have been affected by the attack.  The feeling of loss is almost tangible. Those who died will never grow old, will never be able to materialize their hopes and dreams.  Those who loved them will never get over the pain of bereavement.  I too lost my son a few years ago, and I think I know what I am saying. The physical wounds of those who were wounded in the attack will be eventually healed but their emotional wounds might mime them mentally forever. In our (Eastern) liturgical calendar it is still a Lenten season. We fast and pray during this season. Every Friday we come to our church and observe the day of the crucifixion.  I wish it was only remembrance what happened on the Calvary two thousand years ago.  But  the pain of the crucifixion is still so real in the world we belong to.  Sadly we hear every day that our fellow human beings are being ‘crucified’ as a result of  injustice, wars, military and terrorist attacks.  Bostonians have also been ‘crucified’ very much like other peoples in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. The difference is that we are sadly accustomed to hear about death tolls from less powerful and fortunate countries than America.  I need to offer my condolences and deep sympathy to all those who have been ‘crucified’ both in Boston and everywhere. Crucifixion is not the end of the story.  There is a hope beyond it, the hope of Easter.  Which will wipe the tears of the suffering and grieving not in the eschatological future but here and now.

It  also grieves me when I think of the wasted lives two young people who were responsible for the bombing. I am deeply saddened that they are originally come from Chechnya. The Muslim country which has suffered incredible oppression and humiliation by ‘Christian’ Russia.  For last couple of decades one fifth of Chechen population have been eliminated by troops who had been blessed for the mission by the Orthodox Christian clergy. Political Christianity  was confronted by political Islam in Chechnya. Chechnya is our neighbouring country.  Historically Chechens and Georgians have been enemies. Our enmity was heightened by their religious difference as Muslims and Orthodox Christians respectively and also by brutality committed by Chechens in recent wars in Georgia.  When the refugees fled Russia during the brutal cold winter we responded specifically in response to the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies.  We carried emergency supplies to the refugees and cared for them over a long period of time. We were engaged in all sorts of medical, educational, artistic and social projects in their refugee camps. Rather unexpectedly friendship and love grew between us and the Chechen refugees.   We could not help it. In 1999 before the New Year we asked Chechen children to write down for us what their dreams for the New Year was.  We received hundreds of little stories written by the war children.  Some of them will stay with me for the rest of my life. One twelve years old Muhammad wrote:

“My dream is to die in fighting against Christians.” Then he realised that it was the Georgian Baptist Christians who looked after them and then he changed his mind. He crossed the word ‘Christian’ and wrote on the top of it ‘Russians.’

This little child managed to distinguish between political and religious Christianity.

It happened only because they had seen and experience Christian love and care.  The two boys who were responsible for Boston bombing have come from the same background.  They belong to the same Muslim nation which had been deeply offended by ‘Christian’ state, if one call Russia or any other countries Christian.  But unlike our little Muhammad they failed to tell the difference between political and religious Christianity. I am very sad about it but not at all surprised this is what Christians are also doing they can not tell the difference between political and religious Islam.

It grieves my heart when I think that what has happened in Boston will cause yet another wave of hatred towards our Muslim brothers and sisters both in the USA and beyond. We will never know how many innocent Muslims will be humiliated, hurt and abused as a result of the violence in Boston.  This will only help the representatives of political Islam to recruit more people. This should be stopped.

All the security services of the world, police a and military forces may try their best but I am afraid they can not stop hatred and fear.  Love, forgiveness and kindness can! In my country Muslims have been continuously humiliated. After one of recent incidents we went in a sizable delegation to Batumi region where majority of Georgian Muslims live. In this delegation we had some Georgian Baptists, American Baptists (ABC) let by Rev Roy Meddley and British Anglicans led by Bishop Stephen Platten.  We refused to stay in a hotel. We went to stay at Muslim families instead. We had dinner with our Muslim hosts, breakfast, next morning and by the lunch  time we found out the Muslim perspective on Christians and Christian perspective on Muslims had dramatically changed. We became friends. Encounters and hospitality must be one of the keys to break the walls of separation. A few days later I received a letter from the head of the Georgian Muslim community thanking me for the visit and also saying that ‘it  was first time he experienced genuine respect and love from representatives non-Muslim clergy.’ At first I felt flattered by this message but then I realised that it should not be taken as a complement.  This man who must be in his fifties has spent most of his life, half a century, without ever experiencing respect from Christian clergy, office holders of the religion of love!  I think this is disastrous. The Berlin wall came down in 1991 but the wall of separation between Christians and Muslims is still very much up there. Unlike the Berlin wall it is not tangible it is solidly built with the mortar of fear suspicion and hatred. It is built in our hearts and minds.  Good news is that the walls ultimately will come down. Blessed are those who participate in its demolition.

Crises like the Boston bombing can possibly help us to transform the crises into creative process of peace building. I would particularly like to urge my fellow clergy men and women in the USA to make their best in channelling this crises into discovery of  true meaning of religion. It is ironic that in theory Christianity is religion of love and Islam is a religion of tolerance.  We need to rediscover these theoretical constructs from the treasury of our faith traditions.

In Georgian tradition there is a poem  of a Tiger and  a Young Man which was recorded in the highlands of my country.  In the poem a young and beardless hunter who bumped into a tiger  in the rocky mountain range. In the fierce battle both the tiger and the young man fell.  The mother is of the young man is bitterly mourning the death of her son. She is tormented in her nightmares. She can not find peace until a strange thought crosses her mind. She starts thinking of the tiger’s mother who has also lost her son and says:

“Perhaps the tiger’s mother grieves
And mourns her dead son with a louder lament;
Perhaps her heart is bursting now
With sobs that rend the  firmament.
So quickly will I go to her
And strive to soothe her sorrow deep.
She’ll proudly tell me of her child,
I will tell her of mine,
And we in common grief will weep.”

I wonder if this is the way we should find   peace with ourselves and with others: looking at ourselves with the eyes of perceived strangers and enemies and ‘weeping in common grief.  Perhaps we should also mourn together the needless deaths of those who were brutally killed and those who were responsible for their killing. I know this is not easy but who said that healing of the wounds of our crucified planet is going to be easy!?

Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia
Tbilisi, 5th Sunday of Lent, 2013

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6 Responses to A Letter to My American Friends from Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili

  1. Mary Beth Mankin says:

    Maren, Thank you for again sharing words of wisdom from Archbishop Malkhaz! It is helpful to hear from someone who has a deeper understanding and a different perspective from U.S. news media on the background of such a tragedy. — Mary Beth

  2. It’s so kind of him to write to us now, and to do his best to help us understand the situation of Chechen people in Russia. Respectfully, though, I disagree that the Tsarnaev brothers have failed to understand American or Christian kindness. They were settled here as refugees, supported on welfare for more than a decade, and both sons received loving, surrogate fathering from devoted sports coaches who encouraged them greatly. At least the younger boy had many friends, and was given a scholarship and encourage to go to college. The older one also began in college, then dropped out after three semesters. Later, a Christian woman fell in love with him and changed her religion for him. I think the failings here are rooted in the parents and particularly in the mother. The uncle has said as much. Her behaviors are unconscionable, and her refusal to regret what has happened or to hold her sons in any way responsible, to constantly blame others, is quite like her sons’ refusal to, as the uncle said, ‘take hold and settle’. Chechen people are not to blame here. And they have suffered greatly. But this family never lived in Chechnya. Moslems are not to blame here. These two young men are to blame here. And my hunch is there is a lot more to come out about the older one, Sen. Kerry said as much last night. Their youthfulness makes it tragic, but more tragic are the survivors, who have lost limbs, and their jobs (how will they support themselves now?) and may live for many decades in greatly reduced lives, because these two wanted to avenge wrongs which were not part of their own experience. An evil business.

    • Maren says:

      I think Malkhaz speaks from his own experience of having lost a son in the war, but also he does not have the kinds of detailed news about the boys that we have in Tbilisi and his letter is from a number of days ago. As their news is not given “follow up” in our press so ours does not have ongoing features in their news media. My own instinct is that this situation has more in common with Aurora, Oak Creek and Newtown — the violence emerging from meaningless in young men given access to weapons — more than a political statement.

      • I’ve been thinking that, too, and still do think that is a huge piece of it. But last night Sen. Kerry, now Sec’y of State, said a few cryptic but pointed words: that he is convinced there are international connections here and that he is most interested in a money trail – they know the Tsarnaevs had nothing at all, yet who is supporting them in Dagestan, where neither is working, and who financed the older son’s trip there? That, plus the mother’s very strange behavior, make me suspect they went there ahead of time to be safe, and that she knows all about it and has all along. The father may not approve and that may be what his ‘illness’ is about, emotional tension. The father’s brother said as much on the first day, that the father has no influence in the family and that there have been problems since 2009. CNN just announced, a minute ago, that the FBI is now saying Russia wanted info on the mother, too, and she has been on their list of people to watch for a few years. So I think she is dissembling in the interviews, and may have been a motivator for the boys, and money may be her motivation, to secure their old age. So weird. So convoluted. Sort of Keystone Koppish and yet sophisticated. I feel for them, especially the surviving son, but do not want to sympathize with their psychopathology. And I feel for the survivors, facing life without legs. And I think your explanation about the Bishop who writes to us is right. He speaks about his son, and also about refugees he has known. And he is a good man.

      • Maren says:

        Yes, he certainly is. And I wonder what he would say this week. But I know that his English is work for him so I won’t press him. And, of course, I wonder how much we know and how much we will know when they think it’s safe for us to know …

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